There is a hidden rule amongst games that any titles that include the words "Ultimate Ninja" must either be man's greatest contribution to the medium or vastly overcompensating for its inadequacies. While describing Naruto as the greatest contribution to anything lacks some credibility, it certainly does n't fail to entertain and is partially deserving of such a title.
In preparation for this review, I acquainted myself with Naruto, and despite my usual cynicism regarding overpowered anime fistfights, I found them oddly watchable, possibly because they didn't venture down the Dragon Ball Z path of constant invincible power-leveling and screaming by the protagonists. Upon playing Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 - The Phantom Fortress, the fan service was instantly fulfilled with a vast number of characters from the series being playable and all the original voice acting being present. Being a recent fan of the series, I can safely say that any veteran will find a lot to like here. Loyalties to characters can be expressed by beating the irritation out of the more despised characters, such as Naruto himself, who never stops shouting throughout the game.
The story jumps aboard the anime implausibility train from the get-go, as a magical flying castle is summoned above the character's hometown, the Hidden Leaf Village, and it is up Naruto and his band of friends to stop it. Any fans of the series will not be surprised that the story will build throughout the single-player campaign, and if you like the way the story is conveyed in the series, you won't be disappointed with the game's plot narrative. Those unfamiliar with the Naruto franchise will have to have their anime-to-English dictionaries at the ready, however, as the terminology will come at you thick and fast.
Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 is split into the single-player mode, a versus mode for quick bouts against the computer, a hero mode where you can pit a team of your choosing against teams of AI opponents, and multiplayer mode to battle one-on-one with a friend. The variety of these modes may seem limited at first, but the difference between challenging an opponent to a single round of fighting is far different from the team battle of hero mode; the latter acts more like an endurance exercise, with your team retaining the same health after each round. The single-player mode follows your path up the 99 floors of the Mugenjo castle, with each floor split into rooms. Some rooms will unlock new parts of the story or useful fight items; there are also healing rooms, where you can alter your team of three main fighters and a leader.
The majority of rooms, however, will be "unstable spaces" that need to be filled by using special scrolls, each of which will turn the room into a different challenge that must be completed in order to progress. They range from a slot machine game to copying button sequences and fighting, so Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 doesn't suffer from the usual tedium of most fighting games' single-player modes; these segments actually feel like legitimate devices for progressing the story.
Due to the number of floors and the limited number of these minigames, this section can drag on at times, especially when the random scroll generator draws out three of the same game, which you have to play over and over again. However, the other game modes are more than enough to keep you entertained, especially if you take this title's depth with a pinch of salt since it is, at heart, still a handheld fighter. As such, it really cannot be expected to provide the intricacy or range of other genres.
The developers seem to have achieved the appropriate difficulty level here, with fights being simple enough at the outset to allow for some novice button-mashing, but the challenge ramps up later on when the enemy AI punishes you for not learning advanced combos. The control system suits itself expertly to this learning curve, since only one button controls the main attacks, combined with the d-pad to execute more precise maneuvers. It can be a little frustrating to remember the exact number of ups or downs and button combinations in the heat of battle, which would have been avoided with a more complex control system, but with practice, it will grow on you. Even though the range of moves for each of the 23 characters is diverse, you will find yourself relying on the same moves throughout the game, and the difference in damage caused by the special jutsu moves and the destructive secret moves is minimal.
Cosmetically, the number of special moves and the differences between them is impressive and definitely creates a sense of individuality for each character that may be missing from some characters who appear to share playing styles. The fighting itself is fluid, fast and fun. Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 is easy to get into and difficult to master, a mantra that encompasses what a fighting game should be. You can feel the power behind every punch, and the satisfaction of a close victory is on par with some of my best moments in gaming. The AI can be a little imbalanced later on, with the later levels cranking up the difficulty and making your opponents almost untouchable while being able to break through your defenses in seconds. Be wary about playing this game in public or on the move in case, like me, your profuse swearing may get you kicked off the bus. The introduction of items into the fighting system is inspired; they are not overused or overpowered but can be subtly used to turn the tide of a battle. The developers have obviously tried to keep the focus on the close combat fighting rather than loading up a player with weaponry, and it really pays off here.
Multiplayer is an almost essential feature for any fighter, and the "straight from the arcade" feel of Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 is utilized for a frantic, if limited, experience. You can connect up to 16 players in a lobby, and from there, you can challenge anyone to a battle. The chance that you will find 15 other people in the same place at the same time with the same game is fairly slim, but the lobby system works fine. You each pick out a team of fighters and then, well, fight. Since the lobby system allows 16 people to join, you would think that there would be a tournament system or a ranking system or even that a team of three fighters could be made up of multiple players rather than just one, but all you can do is fight in single combat against one opponent. It's fun but lacking, considering the groundwork put in for a large group of combatants.
Graphically, you would have a hard time separating Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 from its PS2 counterpart. It may be a little rougher round the edges, but the scenery is detailed enough to see the leaves blowing though the stadium, witness each blow as it makes contact, and watch the pained expression on your character's face when he takes a beating. The cel-shading stays true to the anime series, and it's as close as you're going to get to living in Naruto's world. The secret moves are especially impressive, with the scale of each character's special jutsu being captured; they definitely add to the characterization, adequately distracting you from noticing the limited differences in fighting styles. Fans of the series will enjoy the graphical aesthetic, and newcomers should be impressed by the way the game flows seamlessly in combat at lightning speeds.
The title's script and voice acting staying true to its roots, even down to the constant shouting of Naruto, which is comparable to a chimp with ADD. The script is well written in the style of the show, if a little hackneyed by normal literary standards, and it's delivered well with the voice acting. The music feels ripped from the arcades and reminds me of the old Street Fighter games to the point where I have to keep reminding myself that I don't have to put money in my PSP to continue. It suits the game well and adds some retro charm to the fighting, which may ease the non-Naruto aficionado into the gameplay. Everything about the presentation is in keeping with the anime series and other Naruto titles; as such, it will meet any fan's cosplay needs while in the game.
I personally loved Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 - The Phantom Fortress, despite how ridiculous it feels to type out that title. It has the right mix of components to make a great fighting game, and it's a fantastic addition to the Naruto canonical plot. The action is fast-paced, the control system is intuitive, and the presentation is engrossing. The major gripe I have with this as a game is its marketability; with the heavy emphasis on the series as the linchpin and the overzealous use of the Japanese anime lexicon will mostly limit the game's appeal to fans of the series. Although fans will find more than enough here to keep them satisfied, especially if this is their first Naruto game title, those who haven't watched the series may be left scratching their heads at the story and the premise. Confusion aside, you are left with an excellent fighting title that'll keep you engrossed for hours and may cause a sudden craving for ramen noodles.
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